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  • Treasures: The Stories Women Tell About the Things They Keep
  • Elizabeth Podnieks (bio)
Kathleen V. Cairns and Eliane Leslau Silverman . Treasures: The Stories Women Tell About the Things They KeepUniversity of Calgary Press. xxiii, 376. $29.95

Chances are, they are in your home somewhere, displayed on a bookshelf, on a mantelpiece, or in a glass case, or hidden away in a box in a closet or [End Page 216] under a bed: objects that you collect, preserve, and value. In Treasures: The Stories Women Tell about the Things They Keep, Kathleen V. Cairns and Eliane Leslau Silverman present us with their own treasure: a gem of a book about the process and meaning of collecting, gleaned from over one hundred interviews with so-called 'ordinary' women who have bought, kept, inherited, or passed on precious things. The subjects of the study are either native to or have emigrated to Canada, and are of diverse backgrounds in terms of age, race, class, and sexual orientation. The authors discovered that despite differences, all the women they approached for their book had a special collection of some kind. Lengthy descriptions of these collections are transcribed from hours of interviews and are offered as anecdotal evidence to support the authors' central thesis: it is not so much that the objects themselves are valuable as that they serve to confer value on the identities and lives of those who treasure them.

Cairns and Silverman use their introduction to contextualize the practice of collecting within a female and feminist tradition of gathering, protecting, and voicing the stories and experiences of women across generations, within families, and among friends. It is here that the book is most academic, as the authors make references to specific scholarship in the fields of 'feminist psychology, narrative and biography, and women's history.' Elsewhere they acknowledge that they were inspired by many other writers whom they have included in the bibliography though not cited in their book, but the work as a whole is anecdotal rather than scholarly. Brief authorial commentary and short chapter summaries complement the bulk of the text, which is made up of the interviews themselves. Cairns and Silverman interviewed each other as well, telling stories about their own collections and thereby gaining insight into their research process and the experiences of sharing had by their participants. This personal contribution, coupled with the authors' referring to their participants by first name only, draws readers in to a communal offering, and allows us to locate ourselves and our own treasured objects within the wide range of narratives.

Organized thematically, the book groups together very different mementos to great effect. For example, in 'Creating and Re-creating the Self,' we hear about Janet, whose parents entrusted her with their prized collection of Charles Dickens's novels; Laurie, who kept the pin-cushion she made in grade 2; and Maria, who wears a 'freedom necklace' to symbolize her divorce. While the objects themselves have nothing in common, they all speak to some aspect of identity, growth, and self-realization on the part of their respective keepers.

Women, we learn, treasure all sorts of things: there are the obvious, even obligatory, keepsakes like china cups and saucers, jewellery, and dolls; but the book teaches us how even the most unsuspected of objects becomes meaningful in the context of its owner's history, as is the case with the [End Page 217] windshield washer blade kept by Laurel, from her first car, signifying independence. Examples such as this testify to the ongoing need for women to find ways of validating their experiences, expressions, and emotions, given that historically women have been silenced and devalued, their accomplishments unacknowledged or belittled.

One note of concern is that men were frequently dismissed by authors and subjects alike, as when we are told that 'men's unreliability in preserving personal and family history was a common refrain.' While I, like Cairns and Silverman, do not want to challenge the opinions of those interviewed, I wish the authors had developed a more critical evaluation of such statements.

Overall, Cairns and Silverman have put on display their own collection of great value, one that celebrates...


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pp. 216-218
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